The League of Young Voters

“Incorrect” or just plain wrong? — by Jaime Mcleod
April 7, 2008, 3:42 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

[Cross-posted from Jaime’s blog!]

Recently, I had an exchange with someone who’d made some statements I considered to be racist – I’ve never been one to allow ignorance and bigotry to go unchallenged in my presence, and this was no exception. After I explained what, exactly, offended me about her comments, and listened patiently to her self-justifications, the conversation quickly took a defensive turn. Finally, she checked out completely, uttering what she apparently thought was a devastating closer: “Well, excuse me for being politically incorrect!”

Despite the sensitive nature of the conversation, I had to laugh. “Politically incorrect?” Seriously? I’d thought that phrase was a relic the 90s, dying out alongside grunge and Crystal Pepsi.

Generally, any time someone refers to themselves as “politically incorrect,” the implication is that the speaker is some kind of renegade, a culture warrior boldly refusing to allow themselves to be censored by the uptight “thought police” who scour public communication for statements that fail to conform to their own standards of “correctness.” Interestingly, though, the only people who actually use the term “politically incorrect” seem to be those who claim they’ve been accused of being it.

Where did this phrase even come from, anyway? I did a little research, and it turns out its roots are in Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, the definitive collection of speeches and quotes from the infamous Chinese Communist leader. From there, a few people on the radical left briefly adopted it during the 1960s, though its use died out almost immediately, only resurfacing again in the 90s, this time in the mouths of conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh. Since then, derisive references to “political correctness,” and its antonym, have peppered our culture, from Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, to Bill Maher’s late night comedy roundtable talk show, to the Politically Incorrect Guides that claim to offer an “irreverent and unconventional” take on everything from Islam to global warming.

But here’s the thing, the kind of ignorance, bigotry and insensitivity that is generally passed off as “political incorrectness” is not edgy or unconventional at all; it’s just ignorant, bigoted and insensitive. There’s nothing remotely cutting edge about an obtuse unwillingness to explore, and possibly relinquish, one’s own prejudices (and we all have them, if we’re honest with ourselves). In fact, most of what gets smirkingly labeled “politically incorrect” is all too pervasive in our culture.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least when people are unwilling to acknowledge their prejudices, or to at least set them aside long enough to address other human beings with a modicum of common courtesy and respect. Self-protection and resistance to change are part of human nature. But let’s at least be honest about what’s going on here. All this talk about “political correctness” is just a semantic game that seeks to turn the tables on those who hope to effect change – labeling as reactionaries, rather than revolutionaries, anyone who dares to question and challenge the many deeply ingrained assumptions that color our language.


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